Every Child Achieves Act of 2015 – Danger in the Details
The Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions (HELP) Committee recently passed the Every Child Achieves Act of 2015 (ECAA) in the hope of finally reauthorizing the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act. ECAA is expected to go before the Senate for a vote soon. Supporters of the bill claim it will undo many of the prescriptive requirements of NCLB and “restore freedom to parents, teachers, principals, and other school leaders.” While the ECAA wisely removes the requirements for Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) and specific sanctions for low-performing schools, it also adds language that, read properly, actually expands the control of the federal government over education. Why would Republican senators be going in this direction?
Participation in federal programs under NCLB and the proposed ECAA requires that each state submit an application, or state plan, to the U.S. Department of Education (USED). The state must demonstrate how its education system — including standards, assessments, accountability, and other components — will comply with the conditions of the legislation. If the Secretary of Education determines that a state plan fails to meet all those requirements, and if the state refuses to make the recommended changes, the Secretary has the authority to disqualify the state.
Many ECAA supporters argue Sec.1111(a)(6)(A)(v)(I) of the Act would prohibit the Secretary from forcing states to adopt USED’s preferred academic standards, as was done with the Common Core through waivers and grants. Here is the ECAA language they cite:
the Secretary may not require as a condition of plan approval that the state “include in, or delete from, such a plan any criterion that specifies, defines, or prescribes—the standards or measures that States or local educational agencies use to establish, implement, or improve challenging State academic standards, including the content of, or achievement levels within, such standards.”
Although this language looks promising in isolation, it wouldn’t apply to a “requirement” of the state plan. Under Sec.1111(a)(4), a state plan can be disqualified “[i]f the Secretary determines that a State plan does not meet the requirements of this subsection or subsection (b) or (c),” which includes standards, assessments and state accountability systems. And one of these “requirements” is the new mandate – not present in NCLB — that the state’s standards “align” to specific criteria:
ECCA: (D) ALIGNMENT.—Each State shall demonstrate that the challenging State academic standards are aligned with—“(i) entrance requirements, without the need for academic remediation, for the system of public higher education in the State; (ii) relevant State career and technical education standards; and (iii) relevant State early learning guidelines, as required under section 658E(c)(2)(T) of the Child Care and Development Block Grant Act of 1990 (42 U.S.C. 9858c(c)(2)(T))
If a state can’t “demonstrate” to the Secretary’s satisfaction how the standards submitted in its application align to public university entrance requirements, career and technical education (CTE) standards, and the early-learning guidelines of the Child Care Development Block Grant (CCD), the Secretary may demand changes to the standards. And states have little, if any, direct control over the standards required under these three areas.
Consider the first alignment criterion: (i) entrance requirements, without the need for academic remediation, for any public institution of higher education in the state. This requirement may in fact ensure that the states will continue to use the Common Core standards. In their applications for Race to the Top funding and NCLB waivers, states had to provide assurances from the heads of state public universities that the universities would place students who achieved a certain score on the Common Core-aligned assessments directly into credit-bearing courses, without remediation. There has been a concerted effort over the past four years to complete this process, and for many state universities it is already accomplished.
Because of this assurance, USED treats the requirements for state post-secondary institutions as synonymous with the Common Core’s expectations for high-school graduation. Including this language in the ECAA is a deliberate attempt to make the expectations of Common Core the automatic default for standards alignment. It is highly unlikely that a state would jeopardize approval of its plan under ECAA by changing the standards that it knows USED will accept.
The second alignment criterion, “(ii) relevant State career and technical education standards,” refers to the standards for Career and Technical Education (CTE) established through a negotiated process between the Secretary of Education and states through the Carl D. Perkins Vocational and Applied Technology Education Act. Perkins establishes the standards for different vocational tracks in high school AND the “levels of achievement” required on them. According to the accountability guidance issued by USED’s Office of Vocational and Adult Education (OVAE), the Secretary “negotiates annual performance levels on each of the core indicators with each state and then holds them (sic) accountable for achieving results.“ Any state standards for CTE courses in high school must align with those approved by the Secretary; thus, the state will have little, if any, discretion over the state CTE standards — if it wants to participate in federal education programs under the Act.
The third criterion – requiring alignment to the requirements of the Child Care Development Block Grant Act, which covers children as young as six weeks in federal daycare programs – is part of a significant expansion of federal control over education. NCLB applied only to K-12 education programs, but ECAA (through this third criterion, and through a separate provision announcing jurisdiction over “all public school students”), the federal government will now control standards for educating all the babies and toddlers the government wants to force into early-childhood programs.
The ECAA also diminishes state autonomy over education by requiring increased consultation and coordination with stakeholders in programs established under other federal legislation, such as the Child Care Development Block Grants administered through the Department of Health and Human Services. While NCLB also required the coordination of the state plan with federal agencies, the ECAA adds to the list. The ECAA thus does not treat a state as a sovereign entity, functioning outside of the federal government, but as a single part of other government services.
Sec.1111(a)(1)(A) of the ECAA requires coordination of the state plan with the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act, the Child Care Development Block Grant, the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, and the Education Sciences Reform Act of 2002. Intertwining the education system to workforce training, early-childhood education, and larger data-collection systems (Education Science Reform Act) will not serve to liberate schools and teachers, but bind them to the larger system. How this benefits a student sitting in a classroom is far from obvious.
The implications for states dealing with these new requirements for standards alignment are troubling. How would a state both align its standards to the requirements of the ECAA, and maintain any meaningful differentiation from other states or discretion over the substance of the standards? What is clear is that the K-12 system will not function according to the needs of the students it serves; it will serve the federal government and the larger system of federal control.
ECAA is not about emancipating the states from the control of USED, but rather about incorporating the states’ K-12 systems into the seamless web of federal government services, from cradle through the workforce.